The Innerwork of a Chrysalis
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
- Anaïs Nin
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
- Joan Didion
BY ELIZABETH THALHIMER SMARTT
A recurring story in my life is one of metamorphosis.
I start out as a caterpillar, small, green, and insatiably hungry. I cannot leave the ground. I squirm around, eating everything in sight. Then I give myself over to a process I don't understand. I become motionless in a tight, protective cocoon. Life as I’ve known it has changed, but I hold tight to my faith in nature’s all-knowing embrace and resign myself to transformation. After days of darkness and uncertainty, my entire being liquefies. But then something mysterious and incredible happens. The cocoon releases me, and I feel the warmth of the sun on my fragile wings as the breeze lifts me into the air. Suddenly I am more beautiful than I know, and I can fly. I am transformed.
Three examples of this personal metamorphosis stand out in my mind.
My first metamorphosis was the longest: it took the first twenty-five years of my life. I was an ambitious, driven child, fueled by a combination of anxiety and curiosity. I had enormously high expectations of myself as I struggled to achieve that shiny, elusive, unrealistic goal of perfection. In high school and college, I studied to earn good grades by day, and rehearsed and performed the works of Shakespeare, Molière and Neil Simon by night. For “fun,” I wrote and performed in a comedy troupe, produced a television show with a friend, and made short films.
I was constantly busy and didn't know how to relax. I frequently had panic attacks, although I didn’t know that’s what they were. I didn’t feel like the author of my own life, but instead a powerless reader, turning the pages to see what would happen next.
One day, while living in New York City after college, I heard a commercial for cassette tapes to help with panic and anxiety. I ordered them, listened intently, and self-diagnosed myself. By naming my suffering as “panic and anxiety” and starting therapy, I curled into a cocoon allowing me to do some important inner work to better understand how my mind worked. Through this process, I sprouted delicate but functional wings to free myself from the exhausting, constant grip of this mental affliction. For the first time, I was no longer creeping along the ground. I started to fly.
My second metamorphosis took twelve years. An interview with my grandpa turned into an all-consuming quest to write a book about the 150-year history of my paternal family and their department store. I spent years literally dragging around a suitcase of research as I tortured myself into writing and rewriting hundreds of pages.
A shift occurred when my writing mentor encouraged me to write myself into this sprawling history. What? I thought. I can’t do that. This is the story of my grandpa, and the other generations of men who built our family’s store. I’m not allowed in their story! I’m not important enough. But, with great reluctance, I began giving myself permission to enter the story. Ultimately, the book became an autobiographical journey to discovering my family's history. I embraced the story as my own.
During the long, painful, difficult process of writing this book, I again entered a cocoon that allowed me to become a new version of myself. With the birth of my book, I gained a newfound sense of authorship over my own life.
My most recent metamorphosis started two summers ago when an acquaintance named Rachel Douglas asked if I could rewrite the website and develop a tagline for Chrysalis Institute, a local non-profit where she served as Executive Director. I said yes. But as I came to understand the deeper needs and situation, I felt I would need to take the brand apart entirely, examine its parts, and put it back together in order to effectively complete these tasks. It was too much for a volunteer project, so I politely declined – although I really wanted to help this little organization with big dreams and an extraordinary leader.
A few months later, a marketing position opened up at Chrysalis, and Rachel asked me if I knew anyone good for the job. I saw an opportunity to get to know Chrysalis from the inside out and tackle the tasks she had asked me to do, so I applied. Fortunately they hired me.
Having spent my professional career as a Naming Consultant, I welcomed the challenge of finding the right words to tell a clear, concise, and powerful brand story. Digging deep into the brand, I discovered that we faced major communications obstacles, beginning with our name. While Chrysalis was a beautiful word and metaphor, it was preventing us from clearly communicating our mission and purpose to a wider audience. People simply didn’t understand us.
At its core, I discovered that Chrysalis was about doing inner work, and it had been for twenty-five years. After much consternation and debate, we unanimously agreed as a Staff and Board to rebrand as The Innerwork Center. We hoped this change would help us tell our story with greater clarity, authenticity, and confidence.
After all, a chrysalis by nature cannot last forever. It must release what’s inside.
I built a yearlong rebranding timeline, and we began checking off the boxes one-by-one. On May 2, we emerged from Chrysalis to become The Innerwork Center. We’re now sharing our story with more folks than ever before, one of our recent events attracted a record-breaking five hundred people, and we are gaining exposure in the community. Folks have embraced the change with warmth, eagerness, and excitement, and the momentum continues to build!
I’ve worked on hundreds of brand transitions, but this is the only one that has personally transformed me. While the process took up my entire brain space and all of my creative and emotional energy, it has been awe-inspiring and incredibly rewarding. I learned an enormous amount about my capabilities and weaknesses, asking for help when needed, and keeping my priorities in check. The irony is not lost on me that I entered a Chrysalis and emerged with Innerwork.
By noticing the pattern of these metamorphoses, I’ve learned to tune in when a shift is happening, and to be patient and gentle with myself. I’ve also learned that at a certain point, I have to give myself over to the unknown, trusting that change will come. Change can be difficult and scary, but it’s also an opportunity to grow. With each transformation – however difficult or confusing it may be as it’s happening – I emerge as a better version of myself.
Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt is the Brand Storyteller at The Innerwork Center. She spent 18 years as a Naming Consultant, naming everything from building materials to appliance colors to a music academy. She is married to Ryan, and they have two human children, Lyla (12) and Ethan (7), and pug-child Deacon (11). Elizabeth is the author of Finding Thalhimers as well as her own life story.